A tart critique of copyright bullying, a practice that squelches creativity and interferes with the give-and-take of artistry.
Music journalist and intellectual property expert McLeod (Communications Studies/Univ. of Iowa) starts with a broadside at trademark law. Originally designed to prevent consumer confusion and unfair competition, it has run amok in recent years, he argues, hindering free expression, encouraging self-censorship due to fear of litigation, and enabling the privatization of everything from genes to hand gestures. As for copyright itself, once a tool that secured for a limited time exclusive rights for authors and inventors as a means to promote the dissemination of creativity, McLeod persuasively contends that it has become a weapon that stifles creativity through excessive periods of rights and the threat of lawsuits. The ability to comment on the ideas, images, and words that saturate us daily by parodying, criticizing or using them as examples has been stolen from the arena of free speech and recast as an economic issue. Much of our cultural heritage, the author reminds us, has been the result of artistic exchange (i.e., borrowing): blues, folk music, painting, collage, architecture, verbal imagery, all have benefited from the hijackings of, among others, T.S. Eliot, Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, Marianne Moore, the Dadaists, the Situationists, and digital samplers. McLeod gives plenty of examples of absurd copyright bullying, as when ASCAP demanded that Girl Scouts purchase performance licenses for songs they sang around the campfire. Yes, of course, creators should be fairly rewarded for their work, the author agrees, but that’s taken care of under existing copyright and fair-use laws. The movement today is in the other direction, with private corporations arguing that they can best manage public resources like the water supply and the radio spectrum. And when privatization usurps the cultural commons, the free flow of ideas is impeded, and scientific research inhibited.
In McLeod’s expert hands, legal misuse makes good tragicomedy, a theater of greed and control.